Arriving at New York Theatre Workshop for the new production by the British ensemble Improbable, audiences encounter a vast, empty stage with a large wooden ramp downstage center. This slab of a set declares Spirit‘s central metaphor: Life’s a slippery slope, an uphill battle to survive—not to mention stay human—and a downhill slide to oblivion. Pulling themselves in and out of square-cut holes across the ramp’s surface, performers Guy Dartnell, Phelim McDermott, and Lee Simpson suggest human rodents scurrying about on a wedge of cosmic cheese. They also eerily evoke images of stranded Katrina victims, marooned mortals making the best (and worst) of their existential rooftop.
The evening begins with a story of sorts: In a war-torn country, the youngest of three bakery-owning brothers steals the eldest’s conscription letter and heads off to fight (and die). This once-upon-a-time quickly spins off into a series of gestures and anecdotes about conflict, death, and the tricks mortality plays on us. We see war as a crazed puppet show in which headless cloth figures grunt and fight over a cache of potential noggins: a bread roll, a gun, a toy jeep. The performers also recount stories of their fathers’ deaths, mining their memories for the conundrums of loss.
Spirit is co-directed by conflict resolution expert Arlene Audergon and Improbable’s Julian Crouch, who, with McDermott, helmed the company’s other recent New York event, Shockheaded Peter. Like that delicious extravaganza, this minimalist outing implies that while Improbable may go in search of many themes, it always ends up discovering two things: the power of the present moment and the joyful perversity of its imaginations. In one of the most darkly inventive scenes, McDermott himself becomes a puppet as his limp body, handled by fellow actors in an uncanny Frankenstein tableau, is used to play out his own death.
Most theater beguiles by relieving an audience of its self-consciousness for a couple of hours. But Improbable brings you into its world without taking you out of yourself, endlessly breaking the fourth wall to remind everyone it’s only a play.
This strategy can get tiresome, as when the otherwise excellent trio “stop the show” to bicker cutely about who’s the better actor. Other times, letting us in on the act proves intensely intimate. Spirit begins and ends with an improv. The night I was there, a fly had buzzed by Simpson during a monologue, breaking his concentration. The actor made light of the moment in the show’s final minutes, inspiring the ensemble to reflect on flight and gravity. By folding the evening in on itself, Improbable gives the audience a rare souvenir: an acknowledgement of the specific liveness shared across the stage boundary. It’s an act of generosity that suggests the art of theater, at least in the hands and feet of these irrepressible talents, is just silly and splendid enough to survive its lesser practitioners.